Finding & Photographing Poppies
Updated: May 18, 2020
Once again its that time of year when we all go crazy chasing Poppies, that most elusive but beautiful mistress that takes so much of our time and effort but is worth every second.
So its been a while, some of you have been asking where i've been as I used to blog almost weekly and there has been a 6 month gap since that last happened !
Well, to cut a long story short I haven't been very well and have been dealing with getting myself better and back out there, also with a bit of a loss of landscape photography mojo to tell the truth.
My last blog touched on this subject and you will probably all know my feelings on it.
The end result is I have managed probably only two or three trips out since January, a couple of which were to the beloved Brecon Beacons which started the seeds growing to get back to the great outdoors.
I have shot poppies for upwards of eight years so really by now I should probably leave them alone but you just cant beat that rush of searching high and low for them and just when all seems hopeless you go over the next hill and there they are like a sea of red just waiting to pose for your camera.
It really is one of the most rewarding ways to spend with you camera, and when you get it right the shots will bring you back to that emotion every time.
So I started off having a look around in early June to see what was about, Once you see the road side poppies starting to bloom then the fields are generally a week to two weeks away from doing the same.
Poppies are very strange flowers because a field that was covered in them last year wont have a single one in it the next, it can be very frustrating.
The fact is poppy seeds can lay dormant in the ground for an almost permanent length of time.
In fact poppy seeds that were found at the burial site of Tutankhamin in Egypt were planted and successfully grew perfect flowers, and they were put there around 1323 BC so it gives you some insight into this most wondrous of flowers.
Poppies have a habbit of returning to the same field in a three year cycle, its not an exact science but I have seen it several times and tend to find out the same fields will produce if the conditions are right on that time scale.
So where do you start ?
For me there has always been two tactics when searching for poppies, drive and get up high.
I did roughly 500 miles of driving in two weeks looking for poppies and 250 of those was just in one weekend but it paid off and I found three different poppy fields so far. Effort equals reward.
You can of course just ask someone who has found them, they might well help you or they might not, after all they have put the hard work in and don't wish to give it away to someone who hasn't then that is their prerogative.
So lets start with the driving, where should you be looking ? Fields of old rape seed are a good start and seems to be the poppies favourite habitat.
The familiar yellow fields of the spring have now dropped their flowers and are green stalks & pods and poppies seem to thrive in them.
Farmers seem to have been getting better and better at controlling them and they are harder to come by now but not impossible.
To do it successfully its better to work as a team of at least two, one to drive and one to spot so the driver can keep their eyes firmly on the road.
This approach means you have someone who is able to look all around for those elusive flashes of red and you stand a much better chance of spotting some.
Working in a team also offers a good advantage as if there are several of you working together then you can dissect an area and all share the spoils when one of your members finds one.
This relies on complete honesty and a good team, it will also vastly reduce your fuel bill.
If you have a car such as a large 4x4 this will work to your advantage as in a lot of areas you can see over the hedges while car drivers are typically seated below them and may well miss out, this has been the case in the past and I have actually driven past several while not even realising they were there.
The next method which I have found to be very successful is to get up somewhere very high preferably with panoramic views of a big area.
You will be left in now doubt if there is a field within view as the red hues from poppies glistening in the sun can be seen for miles.
If you have spotted a field you then have to work out where it is in order to get to it, thanks to the era of the smart phone it's actually a lot easier now than trying to study maps , etc.
A quick pull up of google maps for example and you can drop a pin at the rough location of the field and head towards it as best possible.
This brings us on to a very touchy subject, land ownership and trespass.
As normal people we would respect someones boundaries and wouldn't even think about crossing them, but as excited photographers who have just come across a giant field of the most perfect poppies it sometimes goes out the window and you clean forget that it's actually someones land.
Of course you can get lucky and find fields with public right of way etc but thats rarely the case.
Take a moment and think, is there livestock around ? Fences ? Warning signs ? If so then this is probably private land.
If you find out who owns it and approach the farm for permission sometimes they are amazingly accommodating and are more than happy for you to do it but on the other hand there are some right miserable buggers out there who will tell you where to go, believe me i've been on the end of both.
The only downside with this is if you have been told no then it's absolutely out of the question to go as you leave yourself wide open to trouble.
Some fields must remain out of reach sadly and that happened to me this year and whilst going through what appeared to be a public right of way I had a very angry farmer demand to know what I was doing on his land whilst filming my every move, I explained to him I thought I was on a byway and showed him the map, which did indicate it, turns out it was slightly further up the road, I was very apologetic and explained it had been a mistake, this farmer however wasn't going to allow me to get to the field (understandable) and I missed out on a cracking shot that I had to take from a vast distance and it simply didn't do it any justice but thats the way it is sometimes.
If you HAVE to go into a private field and I'm not advocating this (but obviously have done it) then please treat it with the utmost respect, use the tractor tracks to move around the field or the edges, remember that is someones livelihood you are walking on and they will be pretty upset about it.
Make sure gates remain closed and make as little evidence of you ever being there as possible, the only thing which is acceptable to leave behind is footprints.
Other areas that seem to have good poppy growth is chalky areas of which there are plenty around and you can get lucky and find great sweeping hills of poppies everywhere, truly special finds.
This year has been very kind to me in terms of finds but lets be clear, it came at a price. A hell of a lot of miles and hours put in and thats the way id sooner do it as when I find a field I know i've really earned it and deserve that shot.
I don't share the locations of fields with people other than very close friends which has attracted a fair amount of criticism usually from people who cant be bothered to search themselves.
Their lazy approach is something that bothers me and I don't intend to fuel it.
The worst is when you put a picture up and then right away you get a comment from someone you've never even spoken too simply saying "where is this" no please, no words on the picture etc.. Manners go a long way and i'd be far more willing to share information with someone who said PLEASE.
Then theres the messages, you know as soon as a picture goes up your inbox will be pinging like crazy followed by people who wont usually give you the time of day suddenly being your best friend, call my cynical but it's the same year after year.
I am willing to share with people who I know have put huge effort in but have so far been unlucky, this in return has come back to me when i've been helped out by the same people returning the favour.
When out searching remember it doesn't have to be a huge field to be effective, if you can find an interesting subject matter behind the poppies such as a structure or good light on a field it can make a great picture, try and condense the view a little with a longer focal length rather than reaching for the wide angle lens each time.
Wide angles are great for big fields though but think about your composition, do you want to get the wide sweep of the field ? if so set your tripod up high to capture the scale of it, or do you want to have a really foreground heavy shot ? or is there just a small patch of poppies ? In which case get down low and go heavy on the short local length and make the field seem a lot more by filling the frame.
The best time for photographing a poppy field in my mind is not actually sunrise or sunset, while they give you great colour in the sky and can look good I personally feel poppy fields are at their best after sunrise or before sunset in the golden hours.
Beautiful light falling on poppies makes them at their very best and intensifies the colours so much more, they can look a bit drab when shooting into the sun, but thats a subjective view and you should shoot what works for you.
Mid day is usually the time us photographers tend to retreat to the computer to process our pictures as the light can be a bit too harsh, but with poppy fields its still possible to get a good picture throughout the whole day, just watch your contrast levels. I especially like moody cloudy days with big dark clouds rolling over the poppies creating drama, especially if theres the odd bit of light shining through on them.
Don't just stick to the main roads, those are the fields everyone soon finds out about, get off the main routes and go down a few back roads, I guarantee one day you will strike it lucky by doing this and enjoy a photographer free zone for the vast majority of it too !
Above everything though, enjoy yourself and your surroundings, take it all in and breath a sigh of relief that you're not stuck in work even if you don't find a field.
Keeping working at it and you will get the best shots of poppy fields to date.
As always, Happy shooting.
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